Visionary uOttawa researchers win Governor General’s Innovation Award

Posted on Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Professors Xiaoyi Bao and Jackie Dawson, whose research has been pivotal in their respective fields of fibre optics and climate change, are the University of Ottawa’s first laureates of the Governor General’s Innovation Award. Presented annually since 2016, the award recognizes exceptional innovators from all sectors of Canadian society whose work is transformative and has a meaningful impact on the quality of life in our country.

“Xiaoyi Bao and Jackie Dawson are both visionaries whose ultimate aim is to protect people and the environment, be it by ensuring the safety of our bridges or by preserving fragile Arctic ecosystems by combining western science and Indigenous knowledge,” said Sylvain Charbonneau, vice-president, research. “The University of Ottawa is immensely proud of their influential work as trailblazing scientists, innovators, and role models for women in science.”

Xiaoyi Bao in her lab.

Professor Xiaoyi Bao

Sensing threats to the safety of public infrastructure

Xiaoyi Bao, a professor in the Department of Physics who holds the Canada Research Chair in Fibre Optics and Photonics, is known worldwide for her invention of the distributed acoustic sensor (DAS), which has transformed how we monitor the structural reliability of civil infrastructure such as bridges, dams, pipelines, railways and highways.

DAS is made of optical fibres and instruments that can “hear” sounds emitted by invisible defects and cracks inside bridges, pipelines, and other critical structures — even before the defects and cracks cause damage that could endanger public safety and the environment.  

Since its invention in 2007, DAS has become the standard non-destructive detection tool in oil and gas and aerospace industries around the world. It has spawned a market that in 2020 was estimated to be worth $440 million (USD). This technology has extended the lifespan of infrastructure everywhere, saving governments and industry billions of dollars. Most importantly, it has saved lives.

Professor Bao is currently working on bringing DAS technology to the next level by looking at ways to image tiny defects in structures of various sizes. She is also exploring the development of cost-effective, very low-noise lasers for real-world applications.

Jackie Dawson near water with a ship in the background

Professor Jackie Dawson

A Northern lens on Arctic shipping and climate change

Climate change is opening up the Arctic in unprecedented ways. Steadily shrinking sea ice, for one, has led to a nearly three-fold increase in marine shipping traffic since 1990. While a longer navigable season enhances economic opportunities in the North, it also presents significant risks to its delicate ecosystem.

Jackie Dawson, a professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics who holds the Canada Research Chair in Environment, Society and Policy, is an internationally recognized expert on climate change and shipping. Her inclusive research is instrumental in shaping public policy on marine transportation in the Arctic and has helped position Canada as a world leader in this field.

She created the Arctic Corridors and Northern Voices (ACNV) research project in collaboration with the Canadian Coast Guard and Inuit communities and organizations to address concerns related to the federal government’s low-impact shipping corridors from the perspective of Northerners. Professor Dawson receives this award along with ACNV team members Natalie Carter, Natasha Simonee and Shirley Tagalik.

The project has mapped 26 years of ship tracks and has involved 14 Inuit communities and 133 Northern participants, who identified and mapped culturally significant marine areas, preferred shipping corridors, and important wildlife breeding grounds and hunting areas. Federal and territorial agencies are now using the project’s data to reprioritize low-impact shipping corridors.

Focused on Inuit-led methodologies, Professor Dawson’s project has redefined best practices for research in the Arctic. Individuals from Indigenous communities were trained to work as equal research partners, 59 of whom were youth. Many of the youth have since been hired by researchers or the Canadian Coast Guard and are poised to eventually take over leadership of the project. The communities involved retain ownership of the project data, a critical step to self-determination in science.

A virtual event celebrating the 2021 Governor General’s Innovation Award laureates will take place on May 20 during Canadian Innovation Week.

Read more about this year’s recipients.

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